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Evaluating Motivation and Developing Career Narratives

Friday, December 1, 2017
Wendy Loughlin

Wendy Loughlin has been with the University of Maryland since 1996. She has been the Director of the Health Professions Advising Office since 2006 and services as the Local Area Network (LAN) Coordinator for health professions advisors in the Chesapeake region. Wendy is also a proud Terp Parent.

Whether it’s medical school, graduate school, or the job market, evaluators have been working diligently to admit and accept the most academically qualified candidates but also to determine who among their applicants are the best fit.   A clear and meaningful narrative is essential to be competitive in the search process. When I say narrative, I’m describing the journey a student takes to discover what they value, what they are passionate about, and what they see their purpose in the world as.

Professional schools and employers are asking the same four questions about applicants.

  1. Can they do it? Looking at a GPA and transcript reveals not only performance, but course selection, work load decisions and the resulting trends over time.
  2. Will they do it? Examining the evidence of past actions can help interviewers to understand what a student is likely to do in the future.
  3. Should they do it? Observing an applicant’s interpersonal skills and hearing from references in meaningful ways acts like a litmus test for how applicants could be a part of their field.
  4. Should they do it here? This is the ultimate fit question; do our values match? Think working at Apple vs. Microsoft.

In my experience, students struggle to develop a meaningful narrative to answer these questions when they don’t fully understand their reasons for pursuing a career. I believe this applies to any field. In my work I’ve learned that extrinsic motivators – salary potential, prestige, job security, what your family members may want for you – can’t sustain students over a 40 -year career.  Intrinsic motivators, like the opportunity for altruism, intellectual and professional growth, autonomy in decision-making, etc. are what I look for from students when I ask them why they want to be a doctor.  Your student’s activities reflect intrinsic motivations, for example longitudinal service can demonstrate they are invested in an altruistic life.  Extrinsic motivators don’t carry the same opportunities for self-discovery and self-discovery often drives student’s passion and sense of purpose.

When students ask me “If I do this, will medical schools like it?” I tell them they are missing the point.  First, I suggest they figure out what they love and want to do.  They will be sure if they love it (or not) the more they engage with their field.   A narrative is a reflection that can only be understood and discussed after engaging in an experience.  My students think I am incredibly corny when I say this, but a resume should be a window to your soul.  If I can’t figure out what you are passionate about by looking at it or reading about it, you have work to do.

As a parent and staff member I have a few guiding tips you can share with your Terp to help them in their journey.

  1. Journal as they go along, pay attention to moments and write them down.  This will help with recalling details when they complete a resume, cover letter, statement of purpose, or any other application materials. More importantly, this will help capture how they felt which transforms a timeline of events into a meaningful narrative.
  2. Cultivate strong relationship with mentors who can help them tell their story.  Building these professional relationships is a life skill.  It requires intention, curiosity and an interest in others.
  3. The goal is to make meaning of their experiences and to articulate that – not to restate a resume. Help them understand that they shouldn’t expect or desire a roadmap for how to find their purpose and develop their narrative. Their journey is unique and it should be, it’s theirs.